The Road to Lille

They hadn’t anticipated moonlight. The forecast had predicted low cloud cover. They swooped onto the cornfield like two jellyfish drifting to the seabed. Olivia dashed for the hedge which bordered the field, scooping and wrapping her parachute as fast as at any time during her training. She stuffed the silken bundle into the base of the hedge, and squatted down, checking her pocket for the map while attempting to slow her breathing. Sweat was creeping down her back and her mouth felt dry. She watched as Hopkins landed and disappeared, leaving the field still and silent. Their orders had been to separate and have no further contact. So far so good.

There was too much light. The moon was clearly visible over the strip of poplars which, as she knew from briefings, bordered the road to Lille. They had been assured the night would be overcast. How many times had she been told during her S.O.E. training that moonlight was an agent’s most dangerous enemy? At least there was no outward sign of their having been spotted. She could not remain here. She broke from her bolt-hole and edged along the hedge-line making for the roadside and the third tree in the row. Was she being watched? No, the only other shadows were the stripes of blackness cast by the towering poplars. She banished the paranoia threatening to engulf her.

Olivia knelt. She felt around the base of the tree, snagging her hand on a dead twig and cursing silently. Nothing. Her orders had said the radio transmitter would be under the third poplar. She crawled around to the other side and saw, illuminated by the moonlight, the hollow in the trunk between the two tree roots. By lying on her stomach and stretching her arm full-length, she could just reach the back of the cavity. Her fingers touched leather. It was here. She managed to grasp the handle and pull the bag out. Curiously, it resembled her old school music case, but far heavier.

Now to make for Monsieur Barreau’s barn. Her contacts would be waiting. She tugged the map from her pocket and oriented the compass secreted in the back of her watch. Two miles south west to the barn. She would have to stay close to cover; with this moonlight it was too risky to cross open fields. She stuffed the map high up inside the tree trunk. If she was stopped and searched, the map would be as incriminating as the radio. 

Dodging from tree to tree, Olivia progressed along the road. About three quarters the way to the end of the line of trees, headlights appeared in the distance. They were heading straight in her direction. Like a crocodile entering a creek, she slid down into the ditch between the trees and the edge of the field, tucking herself as low as she could, while still being able to watch the road. Mercifully the ditch was dry. 

A vehicle approached. From her vantage point, Olivia could see it was a truck. A German army truck. She recognised its bonnet’s distinctive rectangular shape. Unconsciously she tried to make herself even smaller. It drove past her, the lights acting like searchlights as they momentarily illuminated her side of the road. There was at least a dozen soldiers in the back and, shockingly, Hopkins was seated amongst them. He had been captured. But, why was he untethered and seemingly conversing jovially with the soldiers? Olivia huddled even further down into the ditch. 

The truck approached the third poplar and abruptly halted. The soldiers leapt out and ran to the tree, their rifles bared. Hopkins was left sitting alone. There was angry shouting Olivia did not understand. Fluent in French and passable in Dutch, German was lost on her. It was evident they were searching the tree. More angry shouts. One of them was kneeling now. Olivia gasped. The soldier had his arm inside the tree hollow. Would they find the map? Had she pushed it far enough for it to be undetected? The soldier stood up again, brushing down his uniform with distaste. He was shaking his head. His comrades poked about in the undergrowth with their bayonets. Olivia shuddered. It seemed she had moved from that location in the nick of time.

The Oberleutnant turned to Hopkins, ‘You informed us it would be here. Are you positive you have not been mistaken in the tree in question?’ Although heavily accented, the words were barked in a clearly audible, accusatory tone.

Olivia’s heart was hammering again; hammering so hard she thought they would be sure to hear it. Once again, she concentrated on slowing her breathing as she had been taught during training. She watched in astonishment as Hopkins stood and replied,

‘Those were her orders. She must have collected it already,’ Hopkins’ cut-glass accent carried across the watchful French countryside. ‘and be making her way to Barreau’s. We can intercept her there.’ He sounded anxious.

‘I hope for your sake you are correct. We will return to base and collect the dogs. She will not evade us then. We must find the transmitter.’ The Oberleutnant climbed back into his seat in the passenger side of the truck, his shout of ‘Eingeben’ being the order for his men to return to their places alongside Hopkins. The truck grunted into life, executed a multi-point turn, then accelerated fiercely and roared past Olivia’s huddled form.

So Hopkins was one of them. The pieces dropped into the puzzle in her mind. Hopkins seemingly wanting to be so chummy; being so keen to disclose his own orders while pushing for Olivia to do the same. At least she was confident in her own conduct. He had coaxed nothing from her. In truth, she had found his attention irritating, bordering on salacious, so had done her utmost to avoid spending more time than was absolutely necessary with the man. Somehow, though, Hopkins had gained access to her orders. Perhaps a bribe to a secretary? There was no time to dwell on the whys and wherefores, her priority now was to warn Baptiste’s resistance group waiting at the barn.

She clambered up from the ditch, relieved her clothes were only slightly dustier than when she had landed. Her disguise of rough navy dungarees, patched cream calico shirt and navy jacket, so befitting of a female farmworker, would look all the more authentic with the addition of this little extra dust. Keeping low to the ground, Olivia headed for a group of boulders at the far end of the field. 

She flipped open the lid of the battered bag and systematically prepared for transmission. Headphones on, battery engaged, various knobs turned in sequence, she flicked the ‘on’ switch. Bingo. The light signalling its readiness, glowing reassuringly.  It was a process she had practised countless times during the past months, but unlike during training, she found her hands were shaking almost uncontrollably. Those breathing exercises again. Her hands steadied. She began transmitting. No response. The resistance group were expecting her in person, they may not have their receiver connected. 

‘Langoustines’, still no response. She tried again and again, ‘langoustines.’ Finally, a faint crackle followed by another. She could just make out the word ‘crevettes.’ Time was precious. Olivia warned her contact of Hopkins’ betrayal and the imminent arrival of troops at the barn, relieved her command of French stood up to the pressure of the situation. 

The exchange took no more than two minutes. She quickly and efficiently re-stowed the equipment, hoisted the bag onto her shoulder and prepared to make her way to the new meeting point.

‘Friedrich, over here. Well, what vermin have we found so comfortable in this patch of dirt?’ The German voice came from behind Olivia. She froze, not daring to turn.

‘A little sewer rat, don’t you think Friedrich?’ 

A laughing voice replied ‘And we know what we do with sewer rats, don’t we?’

She heard the unmistakable click of a rifle safety catch. 

‘Your little game is up, my dear.’

Olivia waited for the cold steel against her neck. Nothing. She turned slowly. Blind terror pasted across her face.

‘Cut! It’s a wrap. Fantastic stuff guys.’ Jason, the director was striding towards her and the two uniformed actors. ‘That was A-may-zing. Tough luck, Olivia, you won’t be making it to Round Three. Pity really, you’ve certainly made your mark on S.O.E. Agent, Behind Enemy Lines. You’ve been a popular contestant. I’m sure many of our viewers would have liked to see you get to the final. Well done guys, as far as reality TV goes, it doesn’t get better than this.’

Olivia was baffled. ‘You’ve got to be joking. Where did I go wrong? I told Hopkins nothing. I found the transmitter.  I used the correct codeword. I even warned my contact.’

‘One careless mistake. You didn’t check that all the soldiers had got back onto the truck. Two didn’t!’